State lawmakers propose plan for debt-free college

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(KARE) - State lawmakers are hoping to turn lofty rhetoric and campaign promises into a specific plan for debt-free college.

Under the plan released on Wednesday, families making less than $125,000 and individuals making less than $75,000 would qualify for two years of free tuition at Minnesota’s public colleges or universities. Sen. Kari Dziedzic – the Minneapolis Democrat who authored the bill – said the plan could cost anywhere from $56 million to $800 million, depending on who was covered by the legislation. That money would come from the state's General Fund.

“We should be looking at this as an investment not a cost, because it is going to pay us back,” Dziedzic said on Wednesday, noting that the state is facing a workforce shortage.

“If we have a strong economy and we have a lot of companies coming here because we have an educated workforce, that helps grow our economy and gives us the quality of life that we have here,” she said.

At a press conference announcing the legislation, Dziedzic and other lawmakers were joined by several students supporting the plan.

“We are asking Minnesota’s legislators to not condemn a generation to a lifetime of debt and instead fulfill its goal of being the nation’s leader in education,” said Kayla Shelley, a student at St. Cloud State University and Chair of Students United, an organization representing students attending Minnesota State universities.

“Instead of achieving their dreams, their journey has become a nightmare for many of our Minnesotans who have taken out over $27 billion in student debt to pay for their education after high school,” said Frankie Becerra, a political science student at the University of Minnesota and Century College and President of LeadMN, an organization representing students at the state’s two-year technical, community and comprehensive colleges.

Becerra shared his journey of sacrifice for the sake of education, including having to leave school for a year, skipping meals and working more than 40 hours a week while a fulltime student. He’s hoping his brothers – Becerra is the first in his family to attend college – enjoy an easier path to their professional future.

“I think it opens almost all doors,” Becerra said about his college degree and the opportunities it presents.

He added: “That’s what it means. It means achieving the American dream and the Minnesota dream.”

KARE 11 reached out to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education and the office of Gov. Tim Walz – both were still reviewing the plan and did not have an immediate response to its details.

Sen. Paul Anderson, the Republican chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee did respond to KARE 11’s request for comment with the following statement:

“College access and affordability continues to be a top priority of the Senate Higher Education Committee. We will take a look at all the cost drivers in higher education including eliminating textbook costs, freezing or lowering tuition, holding our institutions accountable to be sure dollars are spent in the classroom, and targeted investments into existing programs already making college work for many students. The promise of free college is great, but we must be sensitive to the financial realities facing our state. We can do great things in higher education without creating new expensive programs that we likely can’t afford long-term.”